It was cold in the room, but I could already feel the pits in my shirt growing moist. Lovely. Just lovely. Not really how I planned my day, but hey, when you want a job, it’ll suck for the first few days.
I knew, just by dragging out all of the “craft” supplies out of the closet that I had my work cut out for me. I also reasoned with myself that if I got carried away, that some other shmuck was going to have to clean up the pile of books, like I was doing now. I knelt down next to the pile of books that someone had left half-heartedly done next to the storage shed.
I scanned through them, all familiar. Walk Two Moons, Ethan Frome, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Poisonwood Bible, I was surprised. It was like shuffling through my past. It was like meeting old friends…and enemies. My Junior year of high school I had to read Ethan Frome and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter over the summer and critically analyze every character and every single freaking thing that happened in those books. My teacher was a sexist too. She had split up her classes to be female only and male only classes. She just hated talking about sex in front of a mixed class, but everything that she talked about in those books was about sex, at least by her interpretation. Why in the world of books did she make us read those if she wasn’t going to be able to talk about it without fanning her cheeks every ten seconds. I hated that class. She honestly almost made me hate English class. I still don’t know how she stayed employed.
I was still holding the Holes book that Ms. Krimshaw had handed me. It was a nice, large hardback with embossed lettering on its vibrant dust jacket. There was a series of pits and a yellow lizard crawling across the front of the cover.
It wouldn’t kill me to flip through a few pages, I told myself. I eyed the door at the other end of the room. When I was sure there was no lingering shadows at the jam, I flipped the book open. Page 27, 7th chapter, “The lake was so full of holes and mounds…” and that’s when everything changed. I could smell concrete dust. I started coughing. When I looked up I was startled. The book slid out of my hands and fell into a five foot by five foot by five foot hole. The room was riddled with them. Boxes of books had slid precariously into the holes. “Oh crap…” I muttered. This couldn’t be good.
“What is going on in here?” a shrill shriek resonated through the room. My head swiveled around, my eyes meeting Ms. Krimshaw’s flashing green ones. There goes this job. “Um…” I wasn’t sure how to react to the question. “Termites?” I asked. Her eyes bored holes into my hands, then searched around my feet. Her eyes fell on the hole at the tips of my toes. “The book,” she said.
“Huh?” what was she asking.
“Did you read the book?” she asked me.
“Just a line,” I answered.
“Right. We’ll mess with this later. Come with me,” she commanded. My heart sank. I was so fired, even before I got the job, and I was probably going to have to pay for the damages.
I sulked out of the room and followed Ms. Krimshaw out the door and down the hall. We went into the rotunda. There was a smallish woman of about 50 sitting at the circulation desk. Grey striped her frizzy dark hair and ruby red reading glasses slipped down her petite nose. In her hand was one of the largest mugs of coffee I had ever seen. “Beatrix, I’m taking Mrs. Oppenheimer down to the vaults for a little while, will you be alright up here?” Ms. Krimshaw asked the woman.
“I’ll be fine dear. We don’t get a lot of traffic in here on Thursdays, so I’ll be just fine,” she sipped more of her coffee. Ms. Krimshaw waved to here, then turned and lead me down to the south end of the rotunda beyond the stacks.
“Vaults?” I asked nervously.
“Has this ever happened to you before?” Ms. Krimshaw asked me. Her heels clicked loudly in the tiled hallway that we disappeared into. She unlocked a door and motioned me through. It was a steep concrete staircase. It looked to be an old escape well.
“Ma’am?” I asked, not sure what she meant.
“You read Holes didn’t you?” she asked.
“Only that one line. I’ve never actually read it though,” I mumbled.
“Those holes in the floor, has something ever happened like that? You’re reading a book and suddenly something happens, or there’s someone that could have, well, stepped out of the book you were reading?” she let me through the door at the bottom of the stairwell. It was chilly, and damp. Emergency lights gave the concrete hallway an eerie red glow. “I can’t say that’s ever happened to me before. I mean, well, when I read in a crowded place, it sometimes felt like there were people around that could have been in my books, but that happens to everyone,” I told her. There was a series of hallways spaced along the main corridor we were walking down. About the third or fourth row in, Ms. Krimshaw took me down a side hallway. I had forgotten to put my shoes back on and was debating with myself if it had been better that I had left them or if I should have grabbed them. The floor, though concrete, had been sealed with a slick polyeurethane and I kept finding myself sliding on patches.
“You’re fairly old for this to be kicking in,” she grumbled, more to herself than to me, I thought. She finally stopped at a massive metal vault door, like that found at large banks.
Whatever was in here had to be valuable. She dialed a series of numbers into the rolling lock and with a snap, unlocked the door. She eased it aside. I stared at the door, dumbfounded. It was at least two feet thick. What did they keep down here that would need bomb protection?
Inside, to my chagrine was another hallway, but this time was different. I didn’t want to go in this hallway. Not with a tumble lock door that I couldn’t get out of if it locked on me. I stopped, dead stop, not-going anywhere stop, muleheaded donkey-stubborn stopped. “Where are we going?” I demanded. Ms. Krimshaw looked exasperated, but I didn’t care any more. I wanted to know that I was coming back up for air and that I would see my kid and husband again.
“Just follow me and I’ll explain everything when we get there,” she tried to get me through. I knew I was claustrophobic in the sense that I didn’t like being in a red hallway with a bomb-proof vault door.
“Like hell I’m going in there. I want an explanation now or else I’m leaving,” I blustered. I wasn’t sure if I could even find my way out of these tunnels, but I would sure try if I had to. She eyed me warily.
“I’m taking you to headquarters where we can find out if you are what I’m thinking you are. We need a safe space to double check and they have the only space that I know of,” she told me.
If she was thinking that was going to be enough of an explanation for me, she had another thing coming. She let out a sigh. “Really, dear, I can’t tell you much more. If you are just normal and someone else is responsible for the holes, I can’t let you know more, alright,” she tried to get me through again. I didn’t budge an inch. She took out a tiny cell phone from her cardigan pocket. I had never seen that model before. How did she expect to get a signal down here anyway? Nevertheless, it rang through.
“Hello?” I heard a deep male voice ask on the other end of the line.
“Send up a guard and the cleaners. We have a bit of a mess in the upper level storage room,” she told the man.
“They’ll be right there,” he said and the line clicked. She put the phone back in her pocket. Within seconds I heard the clip of leather soled shoes on the concrete. Four or five people were running our way from inside the vault tunnel. I stepped back down the hallway. My heart raced in time with the echoing steps. Beyond the bend in the tunnel appeared a large man in a red military uniform and four smaller men in white janitors uniforms. I turned tail and ran. This couldn’t be good.
I had made it back to the original corridor. The guard and janitors were keeping pace behind me. I put on the speed, hoping to make it to the stairwell and out before they could catch up. It was futile though. A ham-sized hand settled over my face and a sharp odor stung my nose before the lights went out.
The room was a blur. I could smell cinnamon and nutmeg. My head was pounding and for the life of me I couldn’t bring anything into focus. I knew I was laying down. It was like coming out of anesthesia. There’s a base part of the brain that snaps to and remembers everything, then there’s the forebrain that’s trying to process what is currently taking place. I was cold, and my feet were number. I knew that I had been in the library, but now I didn’t know where I was. I could struggle, but that was futile when I still couldn’t see. I stayed still and waited. I didn’t hear anyone shuffling around. Maybe I was alone.
Slowly the room began to straighten out. It took a while though for my brain to recognize that there were no lights on, just many flickering candles. That was why the corners kept waving in and out.
“I see you’re awake,” a gruff male voice said next to me. My brain flinched, but my body did not react. I tried to flex my hand, only to discover it couldn’t move. I had thought I was holding still of my own volition, but I was paralyzed. “It’s rather futile, you’re beginning to realize. The candles have a potent poison. I’m amazed really that you woke up this soon. We’ll still be waiting here for another half an hour before the Guild Leader and the Chair show up,” the voice near my right ear mumbled. I tried to see the man, but he sat in my blind spot. All I could make out were a faded pair of pennyloafers.
Thirty minutes, half an hour. Of paralysis. Of waiting. Of not being able to escape. I closed my eyes and waited. What more was there for me to do, unable to move or scream. Waisting my energy would only put me in real danger later. I finally identified a light ticking sound. There was either a clock in the room or the man was wearing a watch. I counted the minutes as I began to shallow out my breath. It made me light headed, but the longer I waited, the more feeling I gained in my fingers and toes
A knock came from far away. “She’s awake,” the man next to me shouted. My eyes snapped open. I let out my breath and sat up. I felt the room spin, but I kept with breathing shallowly. I spun to see the man sitting next to me and almost fell off of the gurney. It was Dr. Hamilton. He no longer looked like the happy old man who taught my class. He was dressed in a three piece suit and bowler hat. He had a crystal ball topped walking cain that he rested his arms on. He looked surprised to see me up. It was all I could do to remind myself to breathe shallowly so as not to become paralyzed again.
“Oh-ho. I see we have a smart Keeper on our hands,” came a chuckling heavy voice from the door. “You’re aromatherapy candles seem to be rather useless, Boris.”
I heard footsteps behind me, but I couldn’t turn around. I was doing well to just sit up. I wasn’t about to trust trying to talk, in fear of having to catch my breath and dropping again. “No, they’re holding her just fine, Kipling,” Dr. Hamilton smiled to the man behind me. He reached over and patted my hand. “I’m sorry about all of this, Grace-Alice, but we had to keep you safe from yourself,” he said good naturedly.
I turned slowly to look as the man from the door walked around the gurney to Dr. Hamilton’s side. He was tall, and thin, probably in his late 40s with a short military hair cut and goatee. He too was wearing a three piece suite, but he had a top hat instead of a bowler. “Did Hannah tell you what her talent was?” Kipling asked Dr. Hamilton.
“No, she just had Roger bring her in here after she tried to escape out of the catacombs. Simil’s book triggered her, maybe. He left her Holes and apparently the observatory is now riddled with them. So it looks like she might be a Reader,” Dr. Hamilton stood up, allowing Kipling to take his place. The old man went to the wall and flicked a switch. Oh man that stung. The lights were blinding until I could blink past the pain.
He bustled around the small room, blowing out candles. “Might switch on the vent while you’re at it, Boris,” Kipling told him. Dr. Hamilton nodded, waving him off. I heard a click and then a low whirring above me. I guess he turned on the vent. The scent of the candles slowly started to evaporate.
“The Chair is waiting to meet you. We were at least able to get your shoes, if you would prefer to not appear before your judge and jury barefoot in stockings,” the man smiled at me. I breathed in. My head didn’t spin. I thought I could trust my voice. “Where am I?” I asked.
“Boris, you didn’t even have the dignity to discuss this with her?” Kipling snapped.
“Meh, she looked like she wanted to sleep a little longer.” I heard a door slam shut. I guess Dr. Hamilton left.
Kipling turned back to me. He stared at me for a second. I couldn’t read him. “You are in the Guild Vaults. I can’t let you know more until your test. For now, put on your shoes and we will go see the Chair,” he told me.
I looked down to find my heels. “How long have I been here. What about my son and husband?” I growled. Kipling waved the questions off, ignoring me. I stepped into my heels and walked to the door. Before I could reach it, Kipling’s hand settled over the handle and he opened it for me. “Ladies first,” he said. I could feel my skin crawl.
Hallway after twisting hallway stretched on under my feet like a nightmarish conveyor belt that never ended. Finally he led me into a room. Make that a cavern. It was an enormous gallery with two floors and a panel bench at the far end. Seven people in masks sat at the bench. The gallery was filled with clamoring men and women.
Kipling led me to the concrete block in the midst of the gallery. It was about twenty feet by twenty feet square. As soon as I set foot on it, I noticed the shuffling of the seven masked figures. I heard singing from one, speaking from another. The other five were either writing or drawing at their bench.
I could hear the one who sang clearest though. “Bind the center, make it safe, barrier of protection, hold.” It was a woman’s voice. I stepped back, scared, only to be shocked by an invisible electric fence.
“I wouldn’t try getting out, Mrs. Oppenheimer. You won’t be able to escape until the Chair lets you out,” Kipling whispered to me. I could feel my body start to shake. Adrenaline had hit my system. I was trapped in a twenty foot by twenty foot electrified square in front of probably four hundred people and seven masked men.
“Grace-Alice Marie Oppenheimer, you have been brought before the Guild and the Chair under charges of being a Reader by one Hannah Silvia Krimshaw. Will the witness please take the stand,” one of the masked men asked. I couldn’t tell which one, but I had the sneaking suspicion that it was the one in the middle. I didn’t even know what I was being tried for. Ms. Krimshaw stepped forward from one of the gallery boxes and entered an engraved square of wood near the box I was standing in.
“By the virtues of the Guild and the Reality of the world, due you swear to tell the truth in this courtroom?” One of the men asked.
“I do,” she answered solemnly.
“What is it that you saw that made you bring this one, Grace-Alice Marie Oppenheimer, into the Guild Headquarters?” The man asked.
“As was the arrangement with Boris Hamilton from the Librarian Studies Academy, I placed five interns into the observatory over the course of this week. Simil’s phantom book was apparently Holes for this woman. I left with clear instructions not to read until 12 sharp when her break was going to be recognized. She read a line out of the book, and now the observatory is filled with about a dozen massive holes,” she informed them.
“Simil’s books, how much space did it take up in the observatory?” he asked.
“A small aircraft hanger worth of them. The cleaners estimate 15,258 books total,” she answered. I blinked. That was a lot of books. How did they come up with that number? What was the observatory? Phantom book?
“It was not directed?” he asked.
“It appears to have been a complete accident,” she continued. I was confused. What was directed? Were they talking about the holes in the storage room?
“She’s fairly old for her Scholarship to be Phasing,” one of the other masked figures spoke up. Apparently they were not all adults up at the bench. This one had a high pitched squeak of a little girl. She must have been the one I heard singing when I first came in.
“Her test?” a deep male voice asked from the end of the bench.
“We must verify it for ourselves. Simil?” called the main judge. A man in a cotton candy blue and pink pin striped zoot suite and brass goggles walked forward with a blank page.
“Your graces?” he asked, bowing deeply.
“We would seek to find if she is a Reader,” the main judge motioned towards me.
“Right-O,” the man in the zoot suite smiled. I watched in confusion as he folded the piece of paper into an airplane and launched it at me. I thought it would vaporize in the barrier, but it sailed right through and landed in my hands. I held in my hands an old, tattered book, The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. I knew this book. I had it on my shelves back home. I had read it five or six times. “Page 62,” Simil winked at me. I openly stared at the strange man. His eyes were two toned, one pink, the other black. A white star birthmark encircled his black eye. What in the freakish world was this guy?
I flipped it open and brushed through to the page as requested. A few sentences had been highlighted. I was almost mad. Who had defiled my book, my personal book? This was my book – it had every crease and tear in the worn cover that I recognized. Then my senses snapped back. This wasn’t the time to be worried about a book, I was worried about my life at the moment. “Please, for the gallery,” the judge told me.
“Sir?” I asked, not entirely sure what he wanted of me.
“The highlight, please, read it,” he told me.
“Um, okay,” I cleared my throat. “He picked up the chain again and with a dry sob, Aislinn strained away, but he pushed her down to the floor,” and I couldn’t read anymore. I was suddenly sprawled on the floor, a dog collar fastened around my throat, a single link of a chain fastening me to the concrete slab.
A collective gasp echoed in the room. “Can you unRead, Grace-Alice?” The judge asked, just the tinge of panic flecking his voice. I struggled against the collar, but couldn’t find the latch to release it. It was too tight, and I could feel myself choking. “Help!” I tried to gasp out.
“Break the barrier. Simil!” The judge commanded.
I was beginning to see black spots floating in my vision. “Hi-hi!” The man in the cotton candy clown outfit was smiling down at me. He had a sword. The man had a very sharp…pointy…sword trained on my chest. I was going to die. I was going to freaking die, either by suffocation or being impaled. A guard rushed over to me and mumble-sang “Break the bond, break the metal, save the girl.” It sure wasn’t elegant, but instantly the collar disappeared and I could breath again. I gasped, sucking in air. The tip of the sword pressed against my chest. I looked up at the man, terrified. “You’re a Reader, congrats,” he smiled at me.
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